Could first-time American director Gary Hustwit be the architect of a New Banal documentary movement? With ‘Helvetica’ he produces a gleefully engaging investigation into the world’s most ubiquitous typeface, uncovering a minor shit storm in the world of graphic design as well as broadening the cinematic and analytical potential of the documentary form in the process. Tracing the roots of the Helvetica (née Neue Haas Grotesk) font back to a small foundry in Münchenstein, Switzerland in the 1950s, the film charts its rise as a staple of corporate logos, warning signs and any form of communication that requires a direct, pithy and functional mode of expression. It's almost absurd that something so quotidian could provoke such controversy but, as we soon discover, the graphic design world is very much split over its cultural connotations and artistic worth, allying it as easily with fascism as socialism, progress as decline, superficiality as substance. One highlight is an interview with German typographer and designer Erik Spiekermann who goes so far as to compare the uniform appearance of the font to Nazi soldiers marching in line. In fact, every one of Hustwit's shrewdly selected interviewees has extremely strong opinions on the subject, and there doesn’t seem to be any kind of generational or creative link as to why a designer will love or loathe the font; some see it as a design masterpiece which will never be bettered, others see it as emblemic of a creative drought and serves as nothing more than an easy design solution for lazy creatives.
Artfully photographed, sharply edited and propelled by a gorgeous ambient rock soundtrack, it’s a film which owes more – in philosophy perhaps more than style – to the measured docu-realism of Nicholas Philibert than the bombast of Michael Moore and has obviously been constructed with its utilitarian subject close to heart. Don't let the mundane subject matter put you off. This is one of the wittiest, most diligently researched, slyly intelligent and quietly captivating documentaries of the year.